US-Russia Effort To Contain Nuke Experts Fades.
US experts on Sept. 20 said with the threat of nuclear terrorism looming large in a post-9/11 world, the brain drain of Russian nuclear expertise was an even more critical concern than it was six years ago. Yet a unique 1998 US-Russian partnership to offer new opportunities and skills to destitute Russian nuclear specialists living in remote former-Soviet "science cities" was to expire on Sept. 22 "unless last-minute diplomacy saves it".
A stronger Russian economy and growing wariness of US access to sensitive nuclear programmes has dampened Moscow's enthusiasm for the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) plan, as has a three-year wrangle with Washington over legal liability issues. Yuri Yudin, a former atomic scientist who heads the Analytical Centre for Non-Proliferation in the closed city of Sarov, one of several NCI-funded projects, was on Sept. 20 quoted as saying: "It will be a great pity if this program dies, because it really had an impact around here. The objective was to create nonmilitary businesses and new jobs that could become self-sustaining, and it had considerable success. But the task is far from finished".
Others were quoted as saying losing the programme would be another "unsettling sign" of erosion in US-Russia nuclear security co-operation. Kenneth Luongo, executive director of the Russian-American Nuclear Security Advisory Council, a nuclear non-proliferation group in Washington, was on Sept. 20 quoted as saying: "If we eliminate this program we will be losing a major nonproliferation agreement".
Ten Russian cities - mainly linked to nuclear weapons and missile research - remain "closed" today, even to Russians who lack special permission. The closed nature of the cities became traps for some of the estimated 35,000 Russian scientists who needed work after the Soviet Union's collapse. For these scientists, who live under security surveillance, jobs needed to be created in the closed cities. The tiny NCI programme, which has helped 1,600 scientists in its existence, has been folded into a much larger DOE effort which employs more than 13,000 Russian scientists with grant funding. But NCI is unique in its focus on job creation in closed cities by converting existing nuclear complexes into other businesses, such as computer centres. Luongo said: "If you put the money through different channels, it's not the same. The program's underpinnings and momentum...are lost".
The head of Russia's nuclear agency RosAtom, Sergei Kiriyenko, was slated to meet US Department of Energy chief Samuel Bodman in Vienna last week in an eleventh-hour chance to save the programme.
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration which administers NCI, was on Sept. 20 quoted as saying: "It [NCI] has been definitely a useful tool, a unique way to work with Russian WMD scientists and engineers".
Not everyone agreed the programme was still needed. Valentin Ivanov, a member of the Russian parliament's energy committee, has said that, while there was still plenty of room for US-Russian co-operation on nuclear disarmament, the problems of the closed cities were a "domestic matter" which Moscow now had the means to address. Ivanov was on Sept. 20 quoted as saying: "We thank the US for its help, which was greatly needed in the 1990s. But this is a new time, Russia has a budget surplus now, and [US help] is not necessary anymore".
Negotiators for RosAtom and DOE failed to renew the deal in 2003 after the US side demanded a blanket liability exemption for Americans working on NCI projects, and the Russians balked. Earlier this year, the US acquiesced to the Russians. But whether it was enough to interest Moscow in extending the deal remained highly uncertain.
Even before the legal dispute, Moscow complained that NCI budgets in the $20m range were too low, that much of the money was being spent in the US, and that highly qualified scientists were being re-trained to do low-level jobs like computer programmer and paramedic. But Russian security concerns may also have played a role.
Gennady Pshakhin, an expert at the Institute for Physics and Power Engineering in the formerly closed city of Obninsk, was on Sept. 20 quoted as saying: "Access to closed cities was the biggest stumbling block. Russian secrecy paranoia still exists". He said if his institute - which specialises in civilian nuclear energy - invited a foreigner to visit, it must obtain clearance from President Vladimir Putin or Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.
In Sarov - Russia's Los Alamos - NCI helped to close down one of the ex-USSR's biggest nuclear warhead factories, and turn it into a computer centre which now is used by firms like Intel and Motorola. About 1,000 new jobs were created. Alexei Golubov, a former nuclear researcher who now works as an information analyst, was on Sept. 20 quoted as saying: "The program really helped to diversify Sarov's economy; it changed peoples' mentality and helped to prepare them for the market. It was like a small window that opened onto the world for us".
It was said on Sept. 20 impelling NCI and other such plans was evidence that Russian scientists might be willing to shop their skills to rogue regimes. In one reported 1992 incident, a planeload of Russian scientists was stopped by police "on the tarmac" as they embarked for North Korea. In 1998, an arms expert in Sarov was arrested by the FSB security service for allegedly spying for Iraq. A study in 2005 by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) surveyed the attitudes of 602 Russian nuclear, biological, and chemical WMD scientists. The study found that the mean income for such scientists was about $110 a month, and that 21% were willing to move to a "rogue nation" to work. As for the impact of assistance programmes like NCI, the survey found 12% of those with grant funding would consider work in a rogue state, versus 28% without funding.
However, Pshakhin was on Sept. 20 quoted as saying it was doubtful any atomic experts could illegally leave Russia now, adding: "A lot of nuclear scientists are still underemployed, but things are a bit better. Nuclear scientists are under very strong monitoring. We are not allowed to move freely. Any attempt by a foreign power to recruit Russian scientists would immediately come to the attention of the FSB". Kiriyenko has announced plans for a sweeping revival of Russia's civilian atomic power industry. Military leaders have talked of putting weapons experts back to work. Vladimir Fortov, head of the department of energy for the Russian Academy of Sciences, said while Russia was returning some scientists to their old jobs, the NCI training programmes remained valuable.
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|Publication:||APS Diplomat News Service|
|Date:||Oct 2, 2006|
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